Another Path to Professionalism
By Martha Parsons
Editor’s note: This was originally published in the March 2004 issue of Alki: The Washington Library Association Journal (themed Non-Librarian Librarians).
When I first heard about the theme for the March 2004 issue of Alki, I knew I needed to write something about my experience as a library support staff worker doing the job of a librarian, but I was worried about how I could tactfully tell the story. After talking with both the editor and my boss, we came up with an idea—I’d share my personal perspective, and Angela Santamaria, my boss, and manager of the Washington State University Extension Energy Program Library, would share her perspective on having an employee who works as a librarian without an MLS. We have a mutually enjoyable working relationship, with the ultimate goal of providing outstanding library services to our clients. We hope that our story will give others ideas on dealing with what might be considered an alternative path into the profession.
Do I work as a non-librarian librarian? Good question! The problem is that it’s such a touchy subject (for some people) it makes it a difficult question for me to answer. I fill a classified, non-librarian position, and I don’t have a Master of Library Science, but if you were to ask how my position would be filled if I were to leave, the answer would be that someone with an MLS degree would be hired. But I am still hesitant to say that I work as a librarian. I’m hesitant because I hope librarians won’t assume that I don’t value the knowledge and skills they have earned from their degree. And I hope that those with a graduate degree in library science won’t assume that I think I know as much as they do about librarianship and the profession. I try never to take for granted the knowledge and skills that are earned from a graduate degree in Library Science, and I also hope that those with the degree won’t take for granted the knowledge and skills that each individual brings with them, with or without the “appropriate” degree.
So, you ask, how did someone without an MLS, or even a bachelor’s, for that matter, come to be working in a position with work responsibilities consistent with those of a librarian? In retrospect, I would say it was evolution and timing. The needs of the library evolved, I have grown and changed, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I’ve worked at the Washington State University Extension Energy Program Library for almost eleven years. It is my second library job. The first was at a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) branch library on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I worked there for four years as a library technician, and there was no question that my duties and level of understanding were consistent with those of a support staff worker. All training was on the job and there were no opportunities for advanced training or networking, but timing was critical. I got to participate in the implementation of the library’s first automation system, from beginning to end, which gave me a good basic understanding of one aspect of library operations. Also, since the staff was small, after I had been there for a couple of years, opportunities came along to do other things, such as simple reference work, and literature searches. So, it proved to be a good grounding in basic library tasks, and also lead to a better understanding of library principles.
When I moved to Washington and was hired at what was then the Washington State Energy Office Library, again, I was working as a library technician. I did serials processing, circulation, interlibrary loans, and materials processing. What turned the tide for me, were the numerous opportunities for training and professional involvement that were available, and for which I was encouraged to participate and supported to attend, such as the Washington Library Association, the Washington Association of Library Employees, Online Northwest, the American Library Association, and Internet Librarian conferences; WLA workshops; OCLC trainings; Dialog trainings; and anything else that came along that I was interested in and in which there was a library connection. Every one of these that I attended gave me opportunities to learn and network with librarians and library support staff from around the country. Even sitting in on sessions not directly related to the work I do has provided valuable learning opportunities that have helped put many pieces of the library profession puzzle together. My years of involvement with WLA and ALA have been priceless and life changing. (Neither organization asks whether one has an MLS before allowing participation.) I am fully and constantly aware that training of this kind and professional participation are not substitutes for a graduate degree in library science, but I have to say that they have given me the knowledge and tools to function as a well rounded, fully participating member of the library in which I work, and of the profession.
Since I enjoy working in a library so much, occasionally I’m asked why I haven’t gone back to school to earn an MLS degree. I don’t really know the answer, but there are two possibilities. One is that I just haven’t moved it to the top of my priorities list, and the other is that I’ve not yet become bored with what I’m doing. The only time I can ever remember being told that I couldn’t do something because I didn’t have a degree was in the first few years of my library career (and they were probably correct in assuming that I didn’t have the depth of knowledge or skills to do the particular task).
Salary levels are often another area that pushes some individuals towards pursuing an MLS, but although I often think that it would be nice to be paid more, I’ve never felt exceptionally underpaid in comparison to librarians with degrees. In general, librarians are underpaid for the work they do, so I’ve never seen that there was that much difference between underpaid librarians and underpaid support staff. The goal for all of us should be improving salaries for all library workers.
Standards such as MLS (and potentially LTA) program accreditation, the potential for librarian and support staff certification, and creating core values for librarianship, are all tools that help to measure what we know and what we are doing. I understand the value of these tools in making it easier for administrators and human resources staff to do their job, and also in creating and improving the perception of value for the profession. But I continue to hope that whatever route the hiring of library staff takes, there will still be room for at least some of us who take an alternative route into the profession.
I am forever indebted to the librarians with whom I have worked, both on the job and in professional organizations, who have encouraged, mentored, and supported me as I pursued opportunities to learn about the profession, about libraries, and how they work.
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